The Soul of Wit

What’s the origin of the phrase ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’?

From Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 1602:

LORD POLONIUS
This business is well ended.
My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go.

By Ephrat LivniAugust 1, 2018

Humor me please, and consider the pun. Though some may quibble over the claim, the oft-maligned wordplay is clever and creative, writer James Geary tells Quartz. His upcoming book Wit’s End robustly defends puns and tells the distinguished history of these disrespected witticisms.

“Despite its bad reputation, punning is, in fact, among the highest displays of wit. Indeed, puns point to the essence of all true wit—the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time,” Geary writes. “And the pun’s primacy is demonstrated by its strategic use in the oldest sacred stories, texts, and myths.”

The bible, the Indian epic the Ramayana, and the classic Chinese philosophical text the Tao Te Ching all avail themselves of puns, he notes, though we may not recognize these ancient jokes. The Tao Te Ching begins with a pun, for example. The first line of the text states, “The way (tao) that can be spoken of is not the constant way (Tao).”

Geary explains, “The tao is a physical path, or way, but the Tao is also a spiritual path; the pun brings not only the two sounds and words together but the two ideas, prompting consideration of how to align your physical path (career, life, etc.) with your spiritual path.” It’s thus both a play on ideas and words.

Geary also points out that William Shakespeare, the greatest English language playwright of all time and an acknowledged master of rhetorical jousting, loved puns. The Bard couldn’t resist a quibble—the word for puns in his day. So much so that Shakespeare annoyed contemporaries with his affection for wordplay. “A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career or stomp from his elevation,” writer Samuel Johnson complained.

Geary counts 200 puns in Love’s Labour’s Lost, 150 in each of the Henry IV plays, more than 100 in Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well, and an overall average of 78 puns per drama by The Bard. “In stooping to employ the lowly quibble, Shakespeare elevates buried or forgotten senses of words, showing how the names for things intertwine with the things themselves…he makes surprising correlations and uncanny couplings that keep the reader toggling back and forth between meanings,” Geary writes.

Indeed, many a great mind has been inclined to pun. The 18th-century English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought it was practically a prerequisite to intelligence, declaring, “All men who possess at once active dance, imagination, and philosophical spirit, are prone to punning.”

US president Abraham Lincoln, despite his somber countenance and grave duties, was famously punny. Once, he received a letter from a Catholic priest asking him to suspend the sentence of a man to be hanged the next day. Lincoln quipped, “If I don’t suspend it tonight, the man will surely be suspended tomorrow.”

By using the same word—suspend—in two ways, Lincoln illuminates the relationship between the literal and metaphorical, legal and physical senses of a single term. It’s a link that in conventional thinking remains invisible, Geary explains.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the groundbreaking psychiatrist and writer Sigmund Freud appreciated puns precisely for this reason. They reveal the accidental connections that our minds make, just as the Freudian slip reveals insights into a person’s unconscious thinking.

Rhyming ideas

Geary admits that he often makes pun in his head—but he mostly keeps them to himself. He can’t explain why the wordplay’s not appreciated. “In poetry, words rhyme; in puns, ideas rhyme,” he writes. “This is the ultimate test of wittiness, keeping your balance even when you’re of two minds.”

To Geary, puns represent wisdom. He admits some wordplay is just funny, not deep, and even that excessive punning can be tiresome. But he believes the ability to play with and relate disparate ideas, as demonstrated by the pun, underpins all human creativity—in the arts and sciences and beyond. “When you make a pun, you bring together two distinct ideas—a coincidence of sound, significance, or meaning—and a realization results,” Geary says. “Puns are a way of introducing knowledge.”

Although we can quip to ourselves, as Geary sometimes does, a successful pun is best pulled off with an accomplice. The witty utterance matters little if there’s no clever listener to connect the dots with us. The utterer and listener are partners and both must be capable of creativity for the pun to work. Speaker and recipient take one path to connect distinct notions.

“Puns are all about exchange and they create an intimacy,” Geary insists. “You’re in it together, sharing a secret. You both figure it out and that play is the archetypal creative aspect of the mind and being in a relationship.”     

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